Thursday, January 17, 2008

Quick Takes: Elizabeth Bear, Kage Baker, George R. R. Martin

New Amsterdam, by Elizabeth Bear: New Amsterdam is something of a mosaic novel. Bear links several stories together so that each story builds where the previous one left off and enriches the overall experience, but each story is complete itself. Together, the stories of New Amsterdam feel more like chapters than separate entities. New Amsterdam opens in the late 1800’s with a story of a man making his way via dirigible from the old world of Europe to the new world of America, only this is an America which is still an English colony, where New York is still New Amsterdam, and magic and vampires are real. The choicest detail I found was that magic was as much a science as anything else and a character is a noted ThD (Doctor of Thaumoturgy). There is a formality to the language, or the storytelling, as if Bear was placing the novel in a tradition of a late 1800’s story. This is difficult for me to explain, but a feeling I had. Meanwhile we are introduced to the vampire and private detective Sebastian, and to the Crown Investigator Irene Garrett. Together they make a fascinating pair as they investigate various supernatural crimes with ties to the local government of New Amsterdam (initially). New Amsterdam required a bit more work to read than the average Elizabeth Bear novel (not that Bear’s novels are even remotely average), but this is due to the formality of the prose rather than the content of the stories. Interesting distinction, and while I would like to read more about Sebastian and Irene Garret, I think I would rather read about them on a per story basis, rather than a book.

Black Projects, White Knights, by Kage Baker: As much as I loved the four Company novels I have read from Kage Baker, and as high as my expectations were going into this collection of Company short stories, I was disappointed. Familiar faces flitted in and out of the stories, from Joseph and Lewis, to Kalugin, to Mendoza. Perhaps because these stories were tied to the Company milieu I expected Baker’s Company short fiction to expand our understanding of the characters, their situations, and the overall landscape. Outside of the Alec Checkerfield stories, I do not believe the stories did so (though the story of Lewis excavating a tomb was superb). I suspect that what I brought to the stories is what hampered my enjoyment of them. I was unable to read the stories as discrete piece of fiction, and because of the inherent tie to The Company, most disappointed. I am quite sure that some feel Baker’s Company short fiction is superior to her novels, but based on this first collection I cannot agree.

Wild Cards: Jokers Wild, by George R. R. Martin (editor): This third entry of the Wild Cards series brings the final showdown of Fortunado, Dr. Tachyon, and The Astromoner. Like the previous two volumes Jokers Wild is a mosaic novel. Unlike the previous two volumes Jokers Wild is a straight out novel rather than a series of interlocking short stories. Jokers Wild is still written by a team of writers and edited by George R. R. Martin, but there is a greater flow to the story here because there is one main storyline running through the entire novel rather than having various short stories jump around. This has made Jokers Wild a stronger work than the first two and a far smoother reading experience. Here we get to follow particular characters over the course of the novel and while it is difficult to remember who some characters who were only referenced earlier are, the characters who take center stage here really get to shine. In particular, that woman (Jennifer) who can phase through solid matter, and Spector (the one who can bring death by looking in your eyes) especially stand out. The main selling point of the Wild Cards series (besides the talent involved) is that this is a superhero story where the heroes are real people with real problems and the same varying shades of morality that the rest of humanity has. It is also interesting seeing the changes wrought after the Wild Cards virus was loosed.

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